Anxiety risks for the blind or visually impaired during power outages

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There are additional risks for the blind or visually impaired in a fire

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Anxiety risks for the blind or visually impaired during power outages

People who are blind or have vision impairments may face unique challenges in an emergency. Kathy, who is visually impaired, describes in this personal essay how the PG&E’s controversial “Public Safety Power Shutoff” in California increased her anxiety during the 2019 fire season.

September and October in Northern California are some of my favorite months — lingering Indian summers, warm temperatures, and weather conducive to swimming or outdoor activities. However, October 26, 2019, assumes a different place in my memory because PG&E’s controversial “Public Safety Power Shutoff” (PSPS) is slated to begin. Recurrent droughts and heightened wildfire danger, leading to the destruction of cities such as Paradise, California, necessitate power outages such as the PSPS to prevent further damage.

The uncertainty around whether/when another wildfire could ignite, places all of Northern California in a state of palpable tension. Tonight, to try and escape this anxiety, my close friend Lin and I share a dinner of Thai food and watch a dark movie called, “The Lighthouse,” starring Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe. This movie was in black and white, following the tale of two lighthouse keepers, its darkness enveloped me and I grew more anxious about the impending darkness of the night.

With my vision being the way it is, I see the lights of houses and street lamps on the Caldecott and Tunnel road go right to left, and look like fireflies on the windshield. Tonight, I see no lights as we made our way home, like the fireflies have gone to sleep: Aha, it has begun.

The street signs have become harder to read, as well as the house numbers, but as a frequent flier to my house, Lin navigates to my home without difficulty.

As we turn onto my street, Starview Drive, the darkness prevails. We open the car door and Lin guides me to the top of the pitch-black entryway. We hug good night and although Lin offers to come down the stairs with me, I decline and send her on her way.

Holding firmly onto the rail, I begin a cautious descent down the 14 stairs, counting to myself from the first stair to the last as is my norm. As with any familiar journey, this descent has become etched in my memory bank.

Fire Risks for the Blind or Visually Impaired

People who are deaf or have hearing impairments, those who are blind or have vision impairments, and those with mobility impairments may face unique challenges in an emergency. Their ability to detect a fire or escape its effects may be hindered by their impairments. As a result, people with these impairments are at a greater risk of death or injury due to fire.


FA-205/December 1999

Ted and Julia are at an event, so my trip down the stairs will be more treacherous than most. For the last 11 years, my internal register knows the exact number of stairs before I reach the front door. Descents present more difficulty than ascents, as historically I have been more likely to fall down than up.

I reach the blue front door and fumble to find the keyhole. I edged cautiously along the slate entryway into the kitchen, touching the green microfiber cushions of the barstools. I make a quick about-face, since the kitchen is not my preferred destination. I exit the kitchen, using my right hand to trail along the dining room wall. The blind community navigates terrain by placing the outer aspect of their hands against walls. This allows us to navigate from one room to another by feeling where the end of the wall joins into another room or where handrails can be identified.

I pivot to the left, locating the stairs that lead down to my bedroom. I cautiously inch to the top of the staircase, feeling the white, wooden banisters on either side, my heart filled with anxiety and tension. These stairs have been the site of two previous falls, both within two consecutive years. These were products of being careless and preoccupied with other things, but at least these accidents happened while there was light.


Read moreHow does a support cane for a blind or visually impaired person work?

During one fall, I plummeted down seven stairs and crumpled on the landing. I could barely move and intense pain shot up my right arm and disoriented me. I called out to my husband, asking him to call an ambulance. Instead, he said, “I’ll take you,” and I readied myself to go, wincing with every step. Kaiser ER diagnosed a fractured upper arm.

The second accident involved a head-first plunge down the stairs where my head hit the plaster and left a slight imprint. This ER trip diagnosed upper body musculoskeletal injury with no head injury.

Today, at the top of the stairs, I have no guiding light with the power outage. I reach out and I locate the banister on my right. Cautiously, I descend seven stairs, reach the landing, and then descend seven more steps. Knowing my destination is nearby, I turn left into my master bedroom, moving forward with more certainty, and I locate my lightweight LifeGear Costco flashlight on the nightstand.

Then, I turn on my yellow portable crank radio which is set at 7:40 am KCBS for the next three hours until Ted and Julia arrive home. I listen to its 24-hour news report, hoping to hear more information on the fire dangers. I rest on my bed, with my flashlight, news, and a cozy story from my MP3 player all infusing me with a sense of comfort and wellbeing. I think of an old Chinese proverb, “Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness,” as I settle into the solitude of the night.

Article by
Kathy Stephanides

Kathy Stephanides resides in Oakland, California with her husband and she has two grown daughters, one in LA and one in Oakland.


Recurrent droughts and heightened wildfire danger, leading to the destruction of cities such as Paradise, California, necessitate power outages such as the PSPS to prevent further damage. But these can give rise to anxiety for disabled people.